Ben Stein, Are You Kidding Me?
Early last year, actor and self-proclaimed economist Ben Stein (he also slums it as the nasal-voiced Clear Eyes guy) was in serious negotiations with electronics company Kyocera to appear in advertisements for a new line of printers. But when the Kyoto, Japan-based company (that happens to be promoting new, environmentally-conscious products) got wind of Mr. Stein’s view that global warming is a lot of hot air, it decided to find a better representative for its brand.
This left the always outspoken Mr. Stein fuming, and who could blame him? The contract had the potential to earn him a $300,000 payday. In response to being let go by Kyocera, last month Mr. Stein fired off a 17-page complaint in the Superior Court of California.
His first allegation is that the company breached a contractual obligation.
The problem? The closest Mr. Stein comes to implying the existence of an actual contact is saying that his agent “considered it a done deal.” But there was no contract, not even a verbal one. It’s kind of simple. No contract, no breach.
But Mr. Stein has a Hail Mary pass, and that’s his second allegation: The company wrongfully discharged him because of his religious beliefs.
Well according to Mr. Stein, his opinion on global warming is firmly based on “questioning whether man makes the weather or God makes the weather.” And so, he contends, Kyocera discriminated against him based on his religious beliefs and needs to pay up.
Quite a few media outlets poked fun at Mr. Stein’s suit, but they failed to explain why his claim of religious discrimination is so ludicrous. And, if it is indeed without merit why wasn’t it dismissed immediately? We’ll explain.
The U.S. Constitution ensures that the government will not establish a religion or restrain anyone’s free exercise of religion. But it is the Civil Rights Act that regulates employer/employee relationships saying that employers must make “reasonable accommodations” to employees of different faiths. Religious discrimination is no small matter. In fact, 4,151 religion-based charges were brought to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2011.
Most religious discrimination cases arise when an employee is forced to choose between the practice of her religion and her job. For instance, in October of last year the Department of Justice settled a case that came about when Safoorah Khan, a Muslim teacher in Berkley School District in Illinois, was denied the opportunity to take an unpaid leave of absence from school to take a spiritual pilgrimage. As part of the settlement, the school district paid Ms. Khan $75,000 for back pay, compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees.
“The facts of this case show the consequences of an employer refusing to engage in any interactive process to understand and work with an employee to find an accommodation of the employee’s religious beliefs that will not cause undue hardship to the employer”, said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.
But Mr. Stein, as we noted, had never been hired; we’re sure Kyocera is happy for him to believe whatever he wants about the ozone layer. He was never fired or asked to choose between his religion and working for the company. Kyocera simply decided that Mr. Stein was not the right face for its brand. And let’s be honest. Hiring someone who doesn’t believe in global warming to promote environmentally friendly products is like hiring Tim Tebow to promote a casino. Not a smart branding move.
So how do lawsuits like Mr. Stein’s – silly, baseless, wastes of time – make it through processing at the California Superior Court (or in any court for that matter)?
It turns out that anyone can file a complaint for any reason at all. And once the complaint is filed, it is up to the clerk of court (or “court clerk”) to review the complaint for accuracy and compliance with court rules — but not for legal merit. The courts expect all of us to police ourselves by thoroughly researching our claims and making sure that we’re not filing frivolous suits. I’d say we’re not exactly meeting the courts’ expectations on that one.
After reading the complaint, in order for a court to deem a suit frivolous, it must find that the filing party (or her attorney) knows that her claim is meritless. There are plenty of nonsense claims, then, that fall through the cracks, because however outrageous the claim may seem, the suing party often thinks she has a meritorious case. (There’s no excuse for the lawyers on these cases, though.) Only suits that are explicitly prohibited by statute, lacking any basis in law or initiated with the sole intention of harassing the defendant will be deemed frivolous at the onset.
No, the Clear Eyes guy probably believed his suit has merit and so he did not file what would traditionally be categorized as a “frivolous suit.” It’s safe to say he took a shot at getting his longed for Kyocera payday… but it was a longshot. And a losing one.
UPDATE, February 8, 2012: Aggrieved once again, Mr. Stein says Honda owes him a car.